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When Orange County’s medical director for emergency services, Dr. Carl Shultz, sent out a dire warning last week about Covid-related ambulance calls spiking to levels that are “not sustainable,” the county’s top leaders largely stayed quiet.

Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.

Just as they did last December and January, during the Winter COVID surge that tore into Orange County, county supervisors have worked to keep public pandemic updates to a minimum.

The same kind of quiet approach has been applied to the nearly $1 billion in federal relief delivered to help OC residents tackle the virus. 

Most recently, OC Supervisor Katrina Foley keeps breaking with that approach, challenging her colleagues publicly — even convening a Friday news conference to update residents and the press on the pandemic.

When it comes to public policy, silence can be costly — even deadly.

That’s why our founders prioritized freedom of expression, ranking it as the First Amendment to our national Bill of Rights.

And during something like a pandemic, the county’s own disaster planners put a high priority on the importance of effective communication. 

Tonight, the Voice of OC newsroom will connect readers directly with some of Orange County’s top medical experts with the aim of convening a frank and open discussion about the nature of the public health threat facing local residents and the options they have at their disposal to address it. 

We are honored to be joined by:

Don’t miss our free public town hall at 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 9. RSVP today on our Facebook page. Send in questions ahead of time via email at admin@voiceofoc.org.

  • Dr. Regina Chinsio-Kwong, Orange County’s deputy health officer
  • Sanghyuk Shin, a UC Irvine epidemiologist
  • Vladimir Minin, a UCI biostatician
  • Melissa Dawn Pinto, a nursing professor who is an expert in long term COVID syndromes
  • Dr. Jim Keany, co-director of the Emergency Department at Providence Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo and former hospital chief of staff

The Voice of OC town hall (live at 6 p.m. Monday) is the latest in our evolving COVID coverage specifically aimed at helping Orange County residents and their families navigate the pandemic.

It is our deep hope that the coverage also encourages county officials to engage more with the public.

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County Supervisor Katrina Foley publicly broke away from her colleagues last week — just after Voice of OC announced Monday’s virtual Town Hall and on the heels of two news stories detailing the lack of official public updates on the pandemic or federal relief dollars

Foley convened her own news conference and gathered the county’s deputy health officer to update reporters, who have since published a series of local stories on the latest surge. 

“It’s insanity,” Foley said of the official silence on COVID, adding that she has made CEO Frank Kim aware of her concerns.

“It’s like in Orange County, we’re operating like there’ s nothing to see here,” she said. 

Yet Foley also sees the numbers that local journalists are seeing. 

And she’s worried.

And when publicly questioned by reporters last Friday, Dr. Chinsio-Kwong, didn’t hesitate in casting this latest surge in troubling terms.

She was as frank and professional, thus credible, as any county official on the podium during any point in the pandemic. 

In the last week alone, the number of average daily confirmed cases has nearly doubled, Chinsio-Kwong told reporters. 

Vaccination rates have plateaued, she said during the news conference.

And Orange County sits at an 8.6% positivity rate as of Friday, up from about the low of 1% when the reopening took effect in mid June.

There are 454 people currently hospitalized – up from 55 people hospitalized as of mid June – with 71 COVID patients currently in intensive care units, according to hospital data reported to the state.

“We’re just as bad as in January,” Foley noted on Friday. 

Foley said government leaders shouldn’t stay silent during such a public health emergency.

She said she was on a conference call last week with other elected officials and “it does not look good across America.”

“And it’s really about people who are unvaccinated,” she added.

Foley said after talking to officials at Children’s Hospital about kids getting COVID, she felt it was important to take action and just asked Orange County’s Health Care Agency to offer an expert to talk with reporters and the public.

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It’s rare to see a county supervisor break protocol and host a press conference on a countywide issue without waiting on her colleagues. 

But Foley said it’s time for action. 

“There’s no plan to do anything. Why wait?” she told me after Friday’s press conference.

“I can’t even get the chairman (Supervisor Andrew Do) to acknowledge and agree to get people to wear masks in the boardroom,” Foley said, referring to a large number of public commenters at the bi-weekly supervisors meetings who are protesting masks and vaccines.

While the County of Orange has posted signs indicating masks are required in public buildings, those rules haven’t been enforced at board meetings, despite Foley’s protests.

With thousands of Orange County residents out for the weekend — with as many as 45,000 gathering in Costa Mesa for the OC Fair, Foley said she thought it was important that people understand the nature of the threat. 

“We’ve got to get the word out as people are embarking on the weekend,” Foley told me on Friday.

Foley told reporters she would start hosting her own daily press conferences on the Covid situation in Orange County moving forward. 

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With Foley breaking off from the county pack, one wonders if she is sparking the nascent movement among Orange County cities to stop depending on the county and start thinking about providing services on their own. 

One wonders if this potentially fuels a movement to study Orange County’s charter and tinker with the structure of how county supervisors and the county government do their job. 

More and more, we are hearing talk of setting up public health departments in cities like Santa Ana, Irvine and Anaheim — places that don’t feel like the county board of supervisors is responding to their residents.

In addition, a host of cities are also moving to consider having their own kind of mental health response teams as opposed to having their local police respond to disturbance calls involving homeless people or waiting on county responses that don’t materialize quickly enough. 

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Foley said her efforts are solely focused on getting residents information they need.

Information that politicians don’t want public.

“I just want to make sure that our community is informed so they can make good decisions for their family and themselves,” she said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Now, for the first time, Foley on Friday said publicly what many have said privately complained about for years.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors doesn’t want the public informed.

“It’s not the county government officials that don’t want to do it,” Foley said of public COVID updates.

“The CEO reports to the board,” Foley notes.

And so far, Foley can’t find three other votes in favor of talking about Covid in public.

In the meantime, it’s up to the rest of us to spread the word. 

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